According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mark Twain's Blues

An aging Mark Twain is interrupted during a lecture by Huck Finn and Jim, now older, who set the record straight on The Great American Novel by reenacting scenes from the book the way they should have happened. This Cinna Production may remind some of the recent production of Mark Twain’s own Is He Dead?, but lower in quality.

Photo / Peter Sylvester

Reviewed by John Rice

Walt Stepp’s new play with songs, Mark Twain’s Blues, is not as much fun as it sets out to be. Jen Varbalow’s proscenium arch and bright red curtains are straight off a turn-of-the-century medicine show, but only present the idea of good hokey theatre fun. Stepp, like Twain, is attempting to pinpoint a serious issue using humor, but fails at both, and the play is incredibly flat.

Rather than introduce the real-life problems of Samuel Clemens, Stepp chooses to focus on the one overwrought literary failing of Mark Twain—the unsatisfying ending to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The play begins with the immediate coup of Huckleberry Finn and Jim, now twenty years older, who seek to rewrite their book by acting it out they way it should have been. They take over the stage in the beginning of the play, while Twain is giving a lecture, and never give it back again. Instead of examining the psyche of a famous writer, the play rolls over on its belly and becomes The Huck And Jim Show.

This is the pinnacle of no-conflict action. Huck and Jim accuse Twain of selling them out. Twain agrees. Jim argues that Twain has poor communication with his estranged daughter. Twain concurs. Huck proposes a new ending to the book where he and Jim have to kill a man to escape. Twain begrudgingly accepts the revision. Everything is an agreement, which leaves the audience without a single obstacle to latch onto.

Then there are the songs, which are campy. But with nineteen songs in the two-hour show (that’s a song every seven minutes) the musical numbers frustratingly distract from the task at hand. The play is a barrage of musical numbers parading through scenes of uninteresting interactions between the characters.

The show drags in spite of an accomplished cast doing the best it can with the material. Nobody exemplifies this better than Bonnie Kramer, who plays five roles in the show. Her purposely-cutesy acting is quite enjoyable. Bill Tatum’s Mark Twain is lovable and warm. He has a lot of fun during the dance numbers. Barry Phillips brings a lot of charisma to the now older and enlightened Jim, although his diction becomes a little too articulate at times. The sore thumb of the cast is Lance Olds (Huck Finn) whose rough facial features and out-of-place pop music singing make it difficult to connect him with the character we all loved from the book. Still, replacing him wouldn’t make a difference: acting can’t save a performance if the text just isn’t there.

In 1992, Walt Stepp wrote his first Mark Twain musical, Lightin' Out. According to him, he has revisited the subject matter so as to "tighten the book to focus on Twain's development." But Twain, unfortunately, remains secondary to the show, which is little more than another revision of Huckleberry Finn (and not a very interesting one at that). Don't board this raft.

Mark Twain’s Blues (2 hours)
Cinna Productions @ DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street)
Tickets (Telecharge 212-239-6200): $40
Performances (through 5/10) Wed. - Sat. @ 8pm, Wed. @ 2pm, Sat. & Sun. @ 4pm

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